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Avoiding Common Design Mistakes

7-10 benedetti artBy Paolo Benedetti

Through all the years I’ve spent communicating with other pool designers and builders and in working directly for or consulting with clients, I’ve come across all sorts of design processes and decisions I’d classify as questionable (at best) or just plain wrong, foolish or even actionable (at worst).

I’d originally listed them as ten common mistakes pool designers make (and should try to avoid), but a recent incident forced me to expand the list to cover eleven erroneous ways.  In no particular order, they are:

1.    Designing for short-term savings

You see it all the time:  To trim a few bucks off a project bid, a contractor’s plans won’t specify dedicated pumps for dedicated purposes, leaving a single, oversized primary filter pump to power other features.

It’s a false economy:  An oversized pump can indeed be used to run the circulation system as well as a fountain feature and a slide, for example, but it also consumes a constant, large volume of electricity even if the added features operate for mere hours in the average month.  In addition, the excessive line velocity that accompanies large pumps also takes a toll on plumbing, heaters, salt chlorinator cells and other systems.

Doing things right with multiple small pumps may cost more up front, but the savings pile up quickly in the long run.

2.    Failing to consider return on investment

This one is related in some ways to the point made just above.  Quite often, a contractor will select inexpensive equipment and materials to realize short-term savings when, instead, he or she should help clients see that investing in superior systems or pieces of equipment means longer service lives, less maintenance expense and overall fewer headaches for both the contractor and the client.

Along those same lines, homeowners should be aware (or should be made aware) that multiple skimmers result in cleaner pools; that oversized filters lead to fewer cleanings and lower service costs; and that automatic chemical-feeding systems keep the water balanced and in ready-to-swim condition at all times.  Up-front investments such as these often have far-reaching, long-term benefits!

3.    Overlooking the value of color-coordinated fittings

This one really gets my goat, basically because it’s so simple to find or devise fittings to match or work well with the selected color of a swimming pool’s interior finish.  Many manufacturers now make eyeball fittings, main drains, channel drains and skimmers in multiple colors – so much so that there is almost always something out there that will blend well with your project’s color scheme.

It’s been a long time since it was reasonable to strike a “white or nothing” attitude as a designer or builder:  Pure laziness is the culprit here!

4.    Forgetting to include auto-fills and overflow lines

Face it, most homeowners are busy people, and even for those who have some time on their hands, the last thing they want to clutter their minds with is attending to the water level in the pool.

That can be a problem, because low water levels can result in pump damage (or, in the case of variable-frequency drive pumps, self-protecting shutdown) and/or in the ill-timed shutting down of a pool’s circulation system in the heat of summer.  

Too much water can be problematic as well, as when a good winter or spring storm floods a skimmer and renders it ineffective.  This results in debris sinking to the bottom of the pool instead of being drawn into the skimmer and in rising water that has the potential to damage copings and mortar beds.  These issues can lead to expensive service calls and other unnecessary headaches.  

Again, it’s wise to dodge these situations altogether by investing in auto-fill systems and by installing simple overflow lines.

5.    Deciding not to install a line for a pressure-side cleaner

Even though a client may not desire a pressure-side cleaner up front (or ever), the plumbing line and a booster pump should be installed for use by the homeowner’s selected service company.  

After strong winter storms, garden-hose pressure is simply inadequate to drive a manual leaf bagger properly or effectively.  In addition, a pressure-side cleaner takes care of debris collection while the technician is free to accomplish other tasks, saving both the homeowner and the technician time and money.

6.     Vetoing a dedicated vacuum line on a detached spa

If the spa is not attached to the pool or stands more than 30 feet away from the closest skimmer, then a dedicated vacuum line is needed.  This is much like a “central vacuum” port that allows for the simple collection of sand and silt from the bottom of the spa – a step that makes spa use much more convenient and comfortable for homeowners and their guests.

7.    Skipping automated controls on a pool/spa combination

This is another false economy:  It is simply foolish not to install an automation system on a pool/spa combination in which both vessels share a common filtration and heating system (as with the omnipresent spas that spill over into adjacent pools).

Automation allows the owner to activate the heater, check the temperature and turn the valves in the proper sequence – all from within the house.  That’s a great and valuable convenience, but there are other factors to consider as well.  For example, failing to cool the heater down before turning off the filter pump can damage the heater; this is something that won’t happen if the automated system is properly programmed.  Also, sequencing the valves in the wrong order can drain the spa, dead-head the pump or cause the pump to run dry.  Again, proper programming keeps confusion about valve functions and positions from getting in the way of the homeowner’s good time.

Bottom line:  Not only is automation a good idea on several practical levels, but it’s also become affordable to the point where not having a system – particularly with a pool/spa combination – no longer makes any sense.

8.    Failing to install adequate deck drainage

This is another of my pet peeves:  Allowing decks of any size to drain off into the planters or onto the lawn merely encourages the water to seep back under the decks and percolate into the sand and rock the installer carefully placed under the slabs.

This error can cause corrosion issues with the pool’s reinforcing steel; can cause the pool to crack as a result of saturated soil surcharges; or can lead to deck heaving or settlement.  It can also create efflorescence issues with the pool deck, coping and tile.  And on sloping lots, run-off can actually undermine the slope and either cause mudslides or send the pool down the incline.

It is always best to collect a deck’s surface water and direct the flow to an appropriate discharge point at some safe distance away from the pool and its decking.

9.    Allowing a “pool salesperson” to specify the project

The typical pool salesperson is neither a designer nor a contractor:  Essentially he or she is a person working for a commission and is therefore motivated to sell clients as much as possible at the highest possible price.  In other words, the salesperson’s interests are not the same as the homeowner’s.  

It’s a simple fact that few pool salespeople have the training or expertise required to design or specify materials and equipment for an integrated swimming-pool environment.  Finding one who has what it takes to get the whole job done can take time and effort, but it’s well worth the investment – and literally so, since it’s likely a truly qualified designer will ask to be paid for his or her design services!

10.    Installing a single light in the deep end

This is another head-scratcher for me:  Why would anyone think to install a single, 12-inch-diameter, cheap-looking motel-style light in the deep end of a swimming pool?  To my way of thinking that’s about the silliest thing you can possibly do.

Installing multiple smaller-size lights on the wall facing away from the house (or from some other key vantage point) will result in a pool that is more evenly lit.  It will also mean that you’re not looking directly into a truck headlamp whenever the lights are on – and that those who enjoy lap swimming in the evening won’t risk being blinded every time they complete a circuit.
 
11.    Hiring the Lowest Bidder

For some reason, consumers seem to be comforted by the process of collecting three bids and then (most often) selecting the lowest among them.  Even in rough economic times, that’s another false economy:  A homeowner simply will not get the best possible project for the least amount of money.

Does the best typically come for the least?  That defies common sense, but countless homeowners somehow think it’s true, at least in their own cases.  Just remember:  You get what you pay for!  

 
Paolo Benedetti is principal at Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, a design/build firm based in Morgan Hill, Calif.  He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 

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